Book Review: The Final Retreat by Stephen Hough

To say that I was hooked from the first paragraph of the first chapter of this book would be an understatement; it grabbed me in such a way that I experienced time travel and was yanked back to my first days as a priest. Fr Joseph Flynn is a Catholic priest who has wandered from the straight and narrow; specifically, he has been outed as a regular visitor to rent boys. He is ordered by his bishop to undertake an eight-day silent retreat.

In this first paragraph we are introduced to our narrator, Fr Flynn, as he drives through the rain to Craigbourne, the retreat centre. On the way he reflects on the loneliness he has experienced as a priest while passing homes “aglow with families, blazing hearths on early evenings, banter and argument within, toys tripped over on worn rugs, cogs in domestic wheels turning with ease behind the semi-privacy of partly-drawn curtains – this is when the ache gnaws”.

This is also the point when the Tardis in my mind takes me back to those first days living in the Presbytery, and my parish priest recommending that I read one of Michel Quoist’s Prayers of Life, “The Priest: A Prayer on Sunday Night”. It begins, “Tonight, Lord, I am alone. Little by little the sounds died down in the church, the people went away, and I came home, alone”. Perhaps this was not the best recommendation to a young curate whose hands were still moist from the anointing with the oil of Chrism. But the memory of the occasion when I was introduced to the prayer and the years that followed came flooding back.

The psalms are part and parcel of a priest’s daily life and over the years the words of Psalm 30 have echoed through my life: “At night there are tears, but joy comes with dawn” (v.6). Fr Joseph Flynn’s story is not my story, but there are so many parallels to incidents in my own life contained within the pages of this attractive little book that reading it became both a joy and an ordeal. This is by no means a criticism of the author, the multi-talented Stephen Hough, probably best known to many as a concert pianist and composer, but he is so much more. Up there, among his many gifts is the ability to apply his artistry to words. It would be remiss of me, however, not to warn the potential reader that in places the descriptions of the priest’s sexual encounters will have your maiden aunt’s curlers popping out prematurely.

I particularly latched on to the description of the priggish Fr Neville, assigned to the priest as his “shepherd guide” for the duration of the retreat: “Utterly sexless. Scrubbed to the bone. Shaved to the skin. Short hair parted with razor-blade precision . . . he sits in a hard chair . . .  never leaning back (small mortifications are the best kind) . . . a spiritual stockbroker.” I know the type only too well and, alas, it could well describe many of the new batch of priests exiting our seminaries; but I should not be too hard on them, others might say that was me all those decades ago.

As the story unravels, we learn of Joseph’s early years from primary school, into his early teens, and on to the noviciate of a small religious order, eventually leading to ordination. The promise of a life dedicated to serving God and God’s people, of blessings received and shared, and the betrayals, the excitement of sex “before and during; the sad subsidence afterwards”.

Joseph Flynn’s story is not my story, but there are certainly resonances here not only of my own priestly life but of the lives of other priests I have known, who have suffered the aching gnaw of loneliness and who sought solace in the wrong places. To say I loved this book would not be an exaggeration, but it also saddened me because of the fine priests I have known who left the seminary full of promise, energy, enthusiasm and with the intention of living the priestly vocation authentically only to encounter the disturbing reality of loneliness that can result in a sad tale of abuse, sexual frustration, addictions, failed friendships and the absence of God.

The author of this review is a priest who wishes to remain anonymous